Designated Hitter: There are two kinds of rivalries in sports

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This is what I am thinking about today.

The biggest game of the Patriots' regular season will be played this afternoon in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. One question, among many, that was asked during the week was: "Is this a rivalry?"

It is, and it isn't.

I'm not trying to be glib here, but I have always believed that there are two kinds of rivalries. One involves traditional rivals, and the other involves good teams. For me, the Patriot-Steeler rivalry falls into the latter category.

Steelers fans, many of whom I see on social media platforms, dislike Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Pats. But they only hate the Pats because of New England's success.

Imagine for a moment that either of these teams goes on a six-win-per-season run over the next three seasons. If they are scheduled in the fourth year, nobody will care.

That's because as arguably the two best teams in the AFC for almost the last decade, the Patriots and the Steelers are the measuring sticks that their fandoms use against each other.

This is not Red Sox-Yankees, Penguins-Flyers, Alabama-Auburn, Williams-Amherst. Those rivalries are major feuds, no matter what the records are.

Last year, for example, it didn't matter if the Williams football team was 0-7 — which it was — but a win over Amherst would have made their season.

It never matters if the Yankees are better than the Red Sox. Those games are always emotional for the fans and intense for the players.

Right now, for example, the Celtics are locked in a decent rivalry with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That is because both the C's and the Cavs are really good basketball teams.

Should LeBron James bolt for, say, Los Angeles when his contract is up and the Cavaliers slip out of playoff contention, nobody in New England is really going to care if Cleveland visits.

That's what today's Steelers-Patriots game is, a rivalry built on the quality of teams and nothing more. Pittsburgh goes 6-10 next year, and the Steelers are off the Patriots' radar.

Now, the Jets — that's a different story.

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In case you missed it, WFAN's Mike Francesa hung up his headphones on Friday.

Sports talk radio was around long before Mike and the Mad Dog started sharing a studio in New York City more than 30 years ago. I hosted a Sunday night show in the early 1970s, and got the idea from listening to a guy in Pittsburgh when I was in high school.

But those were just smaller shows. Mike and the Mad Dog took sports talk radio and turned it on its head.

From the time WFAN started, it was the first station on my radio buttons in the car. When my children were in nursery school, I would wait for them by listening to Dave Sims and Ed Coleman, and then listening to Francesa and Russo in the afternoon on my way to The Eagle.

There have been other broadcasters who have hot-taked themselves into fame. Mike and the Mad Dog had their share of hot takes, but at least in the first 10 years of their partnership, those takes were backed up by fact.

Too much of what passes for sports talk today, both in New England and nationally, is less about the what and more about the host's hot take.

Much like most of our nation's top celebrities, at the end, Mike Francesa was "Mike Francesa" the product rather than the host. Just like Dick Vitale and John Madden, it seemed like Francesa became more of what folks expected of him than what he was.

So, if you listen to Evan Valenti or Rodger Wyland around here, Felger and Mazz on NBCSB, or remember when Bob Shade and I ruled Friday morning radio, none of us would have done it without Mike and the Mad Dog.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, and 413-496-6253.


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